Green Alliance: UK’s biofuel consumption making global food crisis worse

The land used to grow biofuels for road transport in the UK could be used to grow crops that would feed 3.5 million people, with biofuel imports having a detrimental impact on fuel and food prices as well as the climate.

Green Alliance: UK’s biofuel consumption making global food crisis worse

Pictured: A farmer harvesting sugar cane, a common biofuel from in the EU and other markets

That is according to a new paper from think-tank Green Alliance which assesses the environmental and economic impacts of the UK Government’s decision to increase the proportion of biofuels in road fuels to 9.6% in September 2021.

The paper states that the UK is a net importer of biofuels, procuring most of its supply from Ukraine, China, the US and EU member states. Most of this fuel is produced using virgin crops rather than being generated from waste.

Green Alliance estimates that the total land use associated with the production of bioethanol for consumption in the UK in 2021 was 107,300 hectares. If this land was instead used to grow grain, the paper states, around 3.5 million people could be fed each year. The paper positions using crop-based biofuels as a moral and socioeconomic issue, particularly amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine collectively account for around one-third of the global wheat supply and around half of the global sunflower oil supply. India, another major wheat exporter, is dealing with a major decrease in production due to early, intense heatwaves. 

The UN is estimating that this disruption will cause up to 131 million additional people to suffer from undernourishment over the next three years. Biofuel production could compound this issue, causing competition for land.

The Green Alliance paper does not argue for an end to all biofuel use, noting the potential of biofuel blends to reduce tailpipe emissions from petrol and diesel vehicles in cases where electric vehicles (EVs) and other alternatives are not yet viable. But it argues that policymakers should interject to promote EVs and the use of biofuels made using waste, stating that this would bring benefits in terms of lifecycle emissions, food security and fuel costs for consumers.

In terms of climate impact, the paper states that the EU has admitted that emissions caused by land-use-change to make way for biofuel crops do sometimes mean that the lifecycle emissions of biofuels are initially higher than petrol. Corn ethanol is cited as a particular cause for concern. It also argues that the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) is overstating the potential tailpipe emissions savings from biofuels, estimating them to be higher than for EVs.

On fuel prices, the report cites an RAC paper stating that the biofuel blending mandate could cost UK drivers £2bn extra at pumps during 2022. Fossil fuel prices are also soaring due to global discrepancies in supply and demand, worsened by the war.

The UK Government is planning to increase the biofuel blending mandate to 14.6% by 2032. Green Alliance is warning that, if the feedstocks used to meet this increase are crop-based and resulting from land-use change, there will be further negative impacts in terms of climate, the economy and food security.

edie has approached the DfT and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) for a reaction to the Green Alliance paper.

Green Alliance does note that the area of land used for biofuels for other markets, like the EU, China and the US, will be far greater than for the UK. The think-tank does not provide policy advice outside of Europe directly, but the paper stipulates that other nations should carefully consider their future biofuel plans.

“Acting alone, the UK reducing its biofuel use could lower the impact of the war in Ukraine on global hunger by at least a quarter,” said Green Alliance’s policy director Dustin Benton. “If the UK acts alongside its international partners, halving crop-based biofuels could free up enough grain to offset all of Ukraine’s exports. Cutting back on biofuels is the fastest way of addressing global hunger in this crisis.”

Comments (1)

  1. Charlie says:

    Sadly, things labelled and marketed as ‘sustainable’ don’t always stand up to much scrutiny.

    For example, take the Drax power station running on wood pellets shipped over from the USA. The carbon cost of ‘farming’ the wood is impactful. Trees are replaced, but don’t take up the carbon that the mature trees do. The transport uses fossil fuels, having a carbon footprint, but this is not counted in either the country of origin nor the destination.

    The resulting electricity is classified as low carbon from a renewable source. In turn, this shifts the balance of calculated carbon impact between electricity and gas. Recently, the energy performance ratings system (EPR) has been reviewed, favouring electricity as an energy type over gas, which forces behaviour toward heat pumps and away from gas with mass renewal of home heating systems underway.

    The ongoing debate about whether heat pumps are more effective or efficient than gas boilers suggests that questions remain, but the electrically powered heat pumps have enjoyed a numerical ‘nudge’.

    From that point of view it starts to look less like an environmentally sustainable solution and more like a catalyst to trigger a bout of mass consumerism.

    I hope I am wrong, but fear I am not.

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